Shaping Consumer Demand for Healthier Eating

Convergence and CBI convene a conversation around the promotion of healthier eating.

Background and Challenges

Washington is no stranger to food fights. Public health organizations, supporters of sustainable healthy food, advocates for the nation’s hungry, and large food companies have long fought over a range of food policy issues, from school lunches, to sweetened beverages, and eligibility for SNAP and WIC programs. The conflict over the role of government in the nation’s diet is ongoing and remains unresolved.

In this contentious climate, Convergence’s Project on Nutrition and Wellness (PNW), with CBI as the lead facilitator, sought to identify a potential set of narrower issues where traditionally opposed stakeholders could collaborate to advance shared interests. After conducting one hundred interviews with a range of diverse stakeholders, Convergence and CBI identified key principles to move forward on the dialogue.

  • Focus the conversation on non-policy action. Convergence/CBI realized that the domestic food policy ecosystem was already saturated with policy efforts and most of these in the realm of Congress, USDA, and FDA were highly contentious. The team thus concluded that non-government actions would be more likely to engage these diverse stakeholders.
  • Focus on how to shape and shift consumer demand to eat healthier. Recognizing that there was already substantial work being done on the supply side (reformulation of products, restricting certain kinds of products), the project team concluded that an area needing more attention was shaping demand for healthier eating.

The CBI and Convergence Approach
Through a series of conversations stakeholders identify consumer barriers and touch points in the market to influence healthier eating. 

First Conversation

Convergence/CBI held an initial roundtable to pilot the potential for these diverse stakeholders to work together. Many participants were not even sure if they could sit “at the same table” with one another, given the intense feelings and fighting that had gone on. We carefully prepped all participants prior to the forum in individual, confidential phone calls and meetings. CBI and Convergence carefully designed this first forum to ensure numerous opportunities for dialogue one on one, in small groups, and as a full group. We received real time feedback and commentary confidentially through texting and emailing in real time throughout the two days. This initial forum focused on identifying shared values and understanding perspectives rather than attempting to even begin to explore concrete solutions. Enthusiastic about the success of this initial meeting, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation agreed to support the project.

Given that so many resources are already given to promoting healthy eating among people 18 and under, the group decided that focus should be low- and middle-income adults and families as a consumer base that is interested in eating healthier, but often strapped for both the time and the money to make healthier eating a priority.

On-Going Dialogue

Through quarterly meetings with participants, including insurers, physicians groups, consumer package groups, large grocery retailers, public health advocates, and non-profit groups, including YMCA and Feeding America, the conversation focused around identifying the various consumer barriers and touch points in the marketplace and how best to influence purchasing and eating behaviors. Through dialogue we explored a host of pilots, innovations, and sectoral roles in shaping demand. Some of these included the following. 

  • Grocery Retailers - The placement of products on shelves and promotion of healthy foods via end cap sales influence consumers. In-store nutritionists can effectively promote healthy meal options and more can be done to connect in-store pharmacies to encourage and incentivize healthy in-store grocery purchases. Rewards cards can be linked to “nudges” for encouraging similar products with healthier profiles and even to employee wellness programs. 
  • Employee Wellness Programs - Employers can influence demand for healthier eating through the encouragement of weight watchers and other health programs that couple healthy competition for weight loss, counseling, coaching and financial incentives, as well as screenings. Offices can also determine what food options are available via their vending machines and cafeterias. 
  • Health Insurance - Given the installment of the Affordable Care Act, there is a role for insurers to play in incentivizing healthy eating, particular through community benefits programs. 

Stakeholders identify a range of innovations to encourage healthier eating and help to develop the Grocery Retail Scorecard

From this dialogue about healthier eating, stakeholders gained a deeper understanding of the barriers and incentives faced by consumers, grocery retailers and convenience stores. The group also identified a range of innovations to address low-income populations, marketing opportunities, and links between sectors, such as health insurance and grocery retail purchases. Some of PNW’s outcomes include:

  • Cultivating a set of highly engaged food retail stakeholders (grocery; convenience stores) that serve as both advisors and testing grounds; 
  • Undertaking a credible market segmentation of key populations to influence; 
  • Convening universities and colleges and low-Income nutritional health experts to address barriers and opportunities to grow demand; 
  • Developing a “better-for-you” platform with the National Association of Convenience Stores that includes new products, new promotions, and new store layouts; and, 
  • Completing a Grocery Retail Scorecard with the Cornell Food and Brand Lab, a tool of about 100 evidence-based tactics to grow sales of healthy foods and nudge customers to healthier purchases.

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